Failure, not success, will be the true arbiter of the future of Hollywood’s diversity initiative. Hit movies happen all the time for a variety of reasons, usually coming down to some hard-to-replicate combination of being the right movie at the right time for the right audience. That’s Wonder Woman and Girls Trip this year, Straight Outta Compton two years ago. Such success stories are often spun as being due to finally serving a ridiculously underserved audience, and there’s a lot of truth to that. But what happens when movies of a comparable if somewhat lesser quality come along to serve that same audience only to be given the cold shoulder? Historically, that’s the moment when the film industry regards the hit as a fluke, the failure as the norm and we end up right back at square one.
That, well, that can’t happen again, and it probably won’t, not with the way things have been trending. However, here we are looking up at Wonder Woman officially crossing $400 million domestic and looking down at Charlize Theron’s would-be franchise starter Atomic Blonde failing to really light the world on fire with a modest 10-day total of $34m, a slightly better pace than the first John Wick but not the resounding hit many were expecting. Similarly, Girls Trip is marching toward $100m while black-led films like The Dark Tower (starring Idris Elba) and Detroit (starring John Boyega and so many others) wither on the vine, the former opening ($19m) below already-low expectations and the latter expanding wide and finding few takers ($7m) for a well-reviewed historical drama about police brutality that plays more like a grindhouse horror movie.
It is too early to really declare any of these films failures. The studios didn’t break the bank making them ($60m budget for Dark Tower, $32m for Detroit, $30m for Atomic Blonde). They all have international runs ahead of them, and Detroit has long since been planned to be the type of movie that takes time to catch on and possibly earns a re-release once the inevitable awards nominations come rolling in.
However, their current struggles don’t quite fit the narrative that if you make movies for women or movies for people of color they’ll automatically become hits because those audiences are just so starved for content. No, they’re starved for good content, just like everyone else. Since Netflix doesn’t release viewing figures it’s hard to say for this sure, but I’d guess more women chose to stay home and binge GLOW this summer than go out and watch another Bridesmaids retread like Rough Night (a movie I personally liked, but I’m in the minority there). Why? Because GLOW had positive word of mouth and Rough Night didn’t.
Similarly, the word of mouth on The Dark Tower and Atomic Blonde screams “wait to rent” as both films are flawed and don’t meet the “Is it a cultural event?” criteria so many now use to decide which movies to see in theaters. The fact that each film ticks off nice little diversity boxes which should theoretically please the social justice warriors is secondary to whether or not the films are any good.
That has been the ongoing story of the summer. With few exceptions (sorry, War for the Planet of the Apes), the better-reviewed movies have made all the money, as audiences have switched from “we want more female- and black-led movies, and movies directed by women and people of color!!” to “we want good movies, period.” Get Out? Great movie. The Dark Tower? Meh.
But what about Detroit? Female director (Kathryn Bigelow) and producer (Megan Ellison). Rave reviews (86% RT rating). A genuinely powerful cinematic experience, one that will stick with you long after you leave the theater. Where’s the audience?
Opting for escapism somewhere else. As Forbes pointed out, “It shouldn’t be a shock that audiences of all stripes opted for the more escapist options as opposed to the horrific true-life drama that offers nothing in the way of hope or salvation. Even in the late 1990’s, audiences preferred Booty Call to Rosewood. And last year they picked The Magnificent Seven over Birth of a Nation.”
The temptation is to call out all those who claim to want diversity but fail to turn out and support movies like Atomic Blonde, The Dark Tower and Detroit. However, this illustrates the limits of treating ticket-buying decisions as a form of social activism. In extreme circumstances, such as the international incident surrounding The Interview where North Korea threatened us and a handful of defiant theaters went ahead with sold-out screenings of the film anyway, people will happily fork over their money to make a statement, even if it means supporting a movie they may not like. But for the most part people just want to be entertained. Atomic Blonde and The Dark Tower are both entertaining, but not as much as they should be. Detroit is powerful, but perhaps too raw and distressingly familiar in our current age of nonstop high profile police brutality incidents.
Of course, in time Detroit might defy the odds and find its audience, but it’s not off to a great start. Atomic Blonde could still get a sequel if it at least matches its domestic numbers in international gross. The Dark Tower…well, it’s looking a little screwed, but that prequel TV series might still happen. However, the success or failure will be based on merit and word-of-mouth, not ultimatums. Go see Detroit, not because you feel you have to see it to support some cause. See it because it is an amazing movie. Supporting everything the film represents will simply be a secondary benefit.
The optimistic angle is to celebrate that we get to even have this conversation this year because in year’s past that one big female-led summer movie would be all we’d get. The pessimistic take is that if we don’t support these movies it’s another bullet for Hollywood to put into the head of its tentative push toward diversity. But I like to believe we have finally reached a point where the struggles of movies like Atomic Blonde and The Dark Tower are just as normal as the success stories of Wonder Woman and Girls Trip.
Not every film has to carry the entire weight of a race or gender on its back, right? Because, if so, movies aimed at white dude teenagers would have stopped being made years ago considering how many failures there have been. The same needs to be true for female and minority-targeted movies. They need to be allowed to fail sometimes, just like any other movie. If Hollywood overreacts to any such failure it’ll mean we’ve truly made no real long-lasting progress here, but I don’t think that will happen, not with the dollar signs in everyone’s eyes due to Wonder Woman‘s box office dominance this summer.
Or do you totally disagree with my conclusion (or anything else I said)? Let me know in the comments.